Are Retweets Really Endorsements?

1 minute read

22-year old Sali Aleh was arrested after an FBI investigation deemed he was planning on joining the terrorist group ISIS.  The basis for his arrest were retweets (RTs) he had made years ago on the microblogging platform Twitter. In the reported article it states:

The police can’t arrest someone for retweeting ISIS unless they have evidence that the intent behind the tweets signified someone acting with criminal intent. But if that’s the case, they seem to have no trouble making the assumption that a retweet is an unambiguous endorsement.

So presumably all those ‘RT ≠ endorsements’ in many Twitter bios are useless. The real problem with this is there is an assumption of the meaning behind a RT. In my thesis I argue that when a journalist RTs someone, they’re effectively opening up the ‘gates’ by allowing the audience to participate in the news production process. I argue that this is the journalist transforming from the traditional practice of gatekeeping.

It effectively means that the message will reach a larger audience. Twitter has an open network structure where conversation is dispersed throughout the network rather than constrained conversation within set boundaries; there is the sense of being surrounded by conversation (Boyd, Golder & Lotan). A RT is simply a rebroadcast of a tweet from another Twitter user. This means Twitter users can be aware without direct participation with features such as RTing — people can be aware/join a conversation without being directly addressed (Boyd, Golder & Lotan).

The reasons why people retweet are as follows: amplify or spread tweets to new audiences, entertain or inform as specific audience as an act of curation, comment on someone’s tweet by retweeting and adding new content in the hope of beginning a conversation, make one’s presence as a listener visible, publicly agree with someone, validate others’ thoughts, an act of loyalty or friendship, recognise or refer to people with less social capital, self-gain through more follower or reciprocity and to save tweets for future access (Boyd, Golder & Lotan).

How can any investigation reveal the motivations or reasons why someone RTed a particular person or group on Twitter?